Orthodox, Male, and Drunk

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

When we conjure up the typical profile of a “religious person”, one of the qualities that leaps to mind is temperance.  In some religious traditions – not ours – this quality dictates the severe discouragement or outright prohibition of any alcoholic consumption at all. In many other traditions – including ours – temperance means careful moderation in consumption, as the state of drunkenness that would otherwise result is incompatible with the state of Godliness. Beginning when Aharon and his sons were forbidden to drink while on duty in the Temple, and continuing through Nachmanides’ oft-quoted characterization of drunkenness as the antithesis of holiness (see his commentary on “You Shall be Holy”, Leviticus 19:2), our religious tradition presents us with the assertion that we may enjoy the presence of God, or the buzz of inebriation – but not both. They simply can’t occupy the same mind simultaneously. And since we are told to stand in God’s presence at all times (shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid), drunkenness at any time is a sacrilege. Ibn Ezra likened habitual drunkenness to heresy (see his commentary to Deuteronomy 21:20). Rabbi Yosef Karo, writing in his Bet Yosef, ruled that drunkenness is prohibited even on Purim, for “drunkenness is an absolute prohibition, and there is no greater sin that it…” (Siman 695)

Tragically though, drinking, well beyond the simple “l’chaim”, has become something of a pastime among many males in the Orthodox community. Contributing to the nature of the tragedy is the fact that much of the drinking is specifically taking place under the guise of religious activity.  The OU’s highly publicized recent campaign against shul-based “Kiddush clubs” provides ample testimony to the wide-spread nature of the phenomenon.  Simchat Torah has somehow become synonymous with excessive alcohol consumption, in willful ignorance of what is allegedly being celebrated. And the drinkers seem to get younger and younger with each passing year.

This is tragic for many reasons. It disfigures and distorts religious life. It introduces the high statistical likelihood that the children of these men will also begin to drink. And it testifies to the troubling reality that many of our community’s men are enjoying little to nothing in the way of authentic religious experience. When davening itself (or learning, or acts of chesed) makes you feel good, it doesn’t occur to you to supplement your experience artificially.

While the Hasidic movement has contributed many great things to mainstream Orthodoxy, the contribution of “religious drinking” – rightly condemned by non-Hasidic scholars as thoroughly foreign to us – has been a disaster.

For the sake of the children, for the sake of the families, for the sake of God and the Torah, don’t smile and pretend that somehow it’s all harmless. Don’t wait till God forbid, something unspeakably terrible happens.

4 Responses to Orthodox, Male, and Drunk

  1. Moish says:

    “our religious tradition presents us with the assertion that we may enjoy the presence of God, or the buzz of inebriation – but not both. They simply can’t occupy the same mind simultaneously.”

    Although you have quoted many sources supporting your claim, you have ignored others. Regarding drinking on Purim- there are sources that indicate that one should not get drunk as you have quoted, but and there are many that explain that one should get extremely inebriated (Maharsha, Chacham tzvi, Arizal etc). In fact, after reading Rav Hutner’s Pachad Yitzchak on Purim, it is clear to me that in his view, it is impossible to really experience the power of Purim without being drunk. Of course many Hassidic rebbes took this view- have you read Rav tzadok or Rav Leible eiger on Purim drinking? They are extremely enlightening sources on the subject.

    Regarding the 4 cups at the seder- Rav Nebenzahl quotes the Yerushalmi explaining that the reason the 4 cups of wine was enacted was in order for one to get drunk “lhishtaker.”

    • Yosef Kanefsky says:

      Thank you for your comment Moish. indeed in the context of Purim there are obviously going to be dissenting voices. After all, that’s pshat in the gemara. But our problem is outside Purim. It’s every Friday night, every Shabbat morning, and at Bar Mitzvahs. Here we’d be hard-pressed to find anything outside of the Hasidic world. And today we have cars, and teenagers who drive them… the stakes are very high yosef

  2. Yechiel says:

    Never mind just Purim or the Arba Kosot – what do you do with “Ein Simcha Ela Be’Yayin”? This is not to say that Chazal intended for people to get drunk, but many people can feel serious effects from even just a small amount of wine. If drunkenness were as taboo as you suggest, surely wine would not occupy the important – even indispensable – position that it does in nearly all matters ceremonial?

  3. Dov says:

    What do we do with “Ein Simcha” when it is used as an excuse for intoxication? First, we note such use is not only out of context in terms of the daf, but also out of its place in history. The source on the daf (Pes. 109a) is really not about wine (or meat) but the loss of joy that came with the loss of the Temple. So first, we can say that in context, wine is being seen as inferior to korbanot as a symbol of joy. Nothing can replace the joy of bringing shlamim, sources of wholeness to the Altar. Wine is simply a pale echo.

    As a side note, both wine and meat are symbols of peace and quiet. Both wine and meat take time – YEARS!- to produce; flocks must be herded and vines tended. Grapes must be harvested carefully, pressed at the right time, and fermented. As for meat, shechita, bedikot, melicha and other steps are demanding elements in beef production. In times of drought and famine, cattle and vines suffer. “Ein Simcha” is a practical statement; when conditions do not allow for the years-long production of wine, conditions are not joyous.

    There are several types of wine in the Talmud, including old, new, spiced and of course grape juice, unfermented. But the majority of wine in the lifetime of the Tanna who brings this idea (R. Y. Ben Betaira, who lived in the time of R. Akiva) was served cut with water, a more dilute product than our modern filtered and refined wines. Drinking of wine in that way was far less likely to lead to intoxication.

    When dealing with the notion of “Ein Simcha”, the lesson is about the symbol of grape and the vine, not the alcohol in the wine.

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